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Passenger Bill of Rights? How about a Code of Conduct?

The dramatic outburst and departure of JetBlue flight attendant Steve Slater has certainly “resonated,” as Slater himself put it. From disgruntled workers who have long fantasized about quitting with a flourish, to airline customers who’ve noted a rise in tension between passengers, airlines, and flight attendants, Slater’s slide down the emergency chute has caught the nation’s eye.

Being a travel blog, I’m interested in what this incident says about the airline business these days, and I think the entire situation can be summed up succinctly: It’s gotten ugly. Passengers are packed into tight economy cabins, overhead bins seem to fill up immediately, fares are going up, fees are spreading like a virus, flight attendants are overworked and underpaid, and airlines are desperate for profits and long-term stability. No one’s happy, no one’s comfortable, and everyone has a bone to pick with someone else.

That said, there is hope. The DOT is working on new rules that would bring a bit more fairness to the marketplace. Flight attendants do the best they can to provide friendly service. And passengers …

Well, it’s a bit more complicated with passengers, isn’t it? We have every right to be frustrated with an industry seemingly determined to squeeze every penny from our wallets. But too often that frustration is directed at individuals that are as much the airlines’ victims as we are: Airport staff and flight attendants.

I’m not the only one who has noticed a decline in patience and politeness among the traveling public. Comments here on SmarterTravel and at other publications suggest more and more travelers are irritated with the behavior of our own bad apples. This is why I’m suggesting a code of conduct for airline passengers, a simple list of common courtesies travelers should adhere to while flying the friendly skies (yes, they’re still friendly, for the most part). Obviously I have no regulatory authority, and can’t penalize passengers for rudeness, but maybe if more people make an effort to treat airline staff and fellow passengers with a modicum of respect, flying will become a more pleasant experience.

1. Smile and Say “Please” and “Thank You” When a flight attendant offers you a beverage or snack, smile. Say, “I would like coffee, please,” and thank him or her when it’s given to you. It’s a small thing for a passenger to do, but the cumulative effect of 50 passengers being polite can be significant, just as the cumulative effect of 50 passengers mumbling one-word answers—”Coke,” “Sprite,” “Coffee”—absent any pleasantries can be deflating. Pleasantries are thusly named because they are pleasant. So, please use them. Thank you.

2. Let it Go If you encounter rudeness, or what you perceive as rudeness, from a flight attendant, brush it off. Making a scene on the airplane may assuage your urge to tell that flight attendant exactly who’s boss, but it creates a negative atmosphere that affects those around you, and may exacerbate the flight attendant’s mood and behavior. If you feel the treatment you receive is worthy of noting, talk to an airline official or the flight attendant after the flight.

2a. Assume the Flight Attendant is Having a Worse Day than You Flight delayed? Terse airline staff? No fun! Imagine doing it all day, several times a week, while having to put on a happy face for planeful after planeful of irritated customers. Consider this before you unleash a tirade.

3. Don’t Blame Flight Attendants for Airline Policies The overhead compartment was not designed by a flight attendant, and it was not a flight attendant who decided to charge for the first checked bag. Remember that your flight attendant probably doesn’t like many of the policies any more than you do. Flight attendants really don’t like first-checked-bag fees because it means more carry-ons and, subsequently, more back injuries as they help passengers heave steamer-trunk-sized luggage into the overhead.

4. Follow the rules Along the same lines, if a flight attendant tells you to do something, do it: Put your seat up, stow your tray, turn off your phone, and so forth. Why? Because you were asked to do so, and because in many cases, it’s the FAA’s law. Don’t be the person who considers him or herself above the rules and causes a ruckus over three inches of recline. In the JetBlue case, it seem the passenger was upset because she was told she could not retrieve her bag while the plane was still taxiing—this is the FAA’s rule, not a JetBlue policy or Steve Slater’s vindictive tyrannical impulse.

5. Thank Your Airline Crew When You Land  OK, you’ve landed. You’ve just flown hundreds or thousands of miles in a metal tube traveling 500 miles per hour some 35,000 feet above the ground, and nothing bad happened. Thank the people that accomplished this (the pilots) and the people who, in addition to serving you drinks and snacks, are trained to save your life if something bad does happen (your flight attendants). People take air travel for granted these days, and in many respects, the job of flying planes has become a thankless one as a result. So thank them.

Readers, what would you add to the passenger code of conduct?

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